A volunteer trip to Uganda gave Cameron Saul the inspiration to mix business and giving back. Jessica Tasman-Jones spoke to the scion of luxury fashion brand Mulberry about creating sustainable leather goods company Bottletop
I grew up with the fashion industry, with Dad having founded Mulberry.I was fascinated by product design, was fascinated by the marketing aspect of building a brand, product development, and taking a product to market. I was definitely interested in all of that, but looking back, I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily wildly passionate about the fashion industry. It’s just what I knew and what I’d grown up with.
Volunteering during my gap year in Uganda was a fundamental moment.While we were there, my friend came back from the craft market in Kampala with a handbag made from recycled bottle tops, and I immediately fell in love with it. Back in the UK, I was at university in London, but I also stepped in to support my father at Mulberry. Eventually I got some samples of those bags over, everyone thought that they were very special and very interesting. We created a campaign in 2002 around that product called the Mulberry Bottletop campaign. It set out to address the apathy around the HIV/AIDs situation and raise money for the education charity that I’d worked for in Uganda.
Mulberry benefitted hugely in terms of the publicity it generated.It was their best-selling bag of the season internationally and it hadn’t actually cost it anything. Mulberry had used all of its resources across the board, but it recouped its costs. The money we made on top went to the charity. It was also a great case study to prove how a company like that could benefit through supporting a cause if it was marketed in the right way. It was almost like we’d done a blueprint for a new kind of brand. A brand that was about beautiful, sustainable design, that was about cross-cultural collaboration, and was about empowerment of artisans, plus the empowerment of young people through health education.
In Brazil we came across bags made from recycled aluminum ring pulls.It sounds really naff, but the material that it creates is absolutely sublime. It’s almost like a chainmail that is recycled, lightweight, and super versatile. It was the discovery of this local craft technique that got us excited to develop a whole new collection and train local artisans in this community in Salvador in the northeast of Brazil. That then became the basis for our collection.
We realised that we were limited by the structure that we were in as a charity. We wanted to invest in the development of products, even though they were designed to fulfill the charity’s mission of empowering artisans. We approached a group of donors and supporters of the charity with our vision, with some of the products we’ve developed. We wanted to build Bottletop as a sustainable luxury brand in its own right, which could then fund the operation at the foundation. We’re in our first more serious funding round now. At this early stage for us it’s really raising funding and equity, and about finding people who want to be a part of our journey.
We’re about to do a big launch with Selfridges in the UK of our first Amazon leather collection.It’s this wonderful zero-deforestation leather that is the first fruits of a project that we set up in Brazil. We partnered with the National Wildlife Federation and the world’s largest tannery and meatpacker to help educate and empower ranchers in the Amazon to commit to better farming practices and commit to not chopping down the rainforest. It’s the beef and leather industry that has been behind the deforestation of the Amazon in the sense that it’s really ranchers clearing the rainforest for cattle to roam.
We were before any major movement in terms of sustainable fashion or ethical fashion.All there was at that point were charities making really tacky products and hoping that people would buy them as a way to raise money, or high fashion brands doing their bit for charity. There was not really anything more meaningful than a percentage donation from a certain product or collection. One thing we happened upon was the potential for a brand that was about the people, but was still about beautiful high-end quality design at the same time. It’s taken almost a decade to see people understanding that, getting that, being interested in that, and wanting that. And that’s really exciting.
The wider plan is for us to scale Bottletop as the world’s leading sustainable luxury lifestyle brand. That means developing new collections in different parts of the world, and moving into different product categories, ready to wear, and interior design, as well as opening stores. We’ll be launching our flagship store in London, and then probably New York behind that. There’s a lot to come.